As a child, seeing our mothers’ experience and struggle with mental illness is an incredibly difficult thing. We see them struggling day in and day out, and that can be confusing for a child who has yet to develop a stable conception of the world. Our mothers are our examples, our inspiration on how to act and behave.
When we see them behaving oddly or differently from how we have been taught to behave, we can be thrown for a loop. Furthermore, there can be a certain amount of blame that we can put on ourselves, which is even worse. A child who feels responsible for their mother’s sadness is more likely to experience heightened senses of anxiety and depression, as shown in research.
According to a new study performed by researchers at Southern Methodist University, children who feel blame for the sadness of their mothers can be more susceptible to these kinds of emotions and negative feelings themselves.
What Do Experts Say?
As explained by SMU family psychologist, Dr. Chrystyna Kouros: “Although mothers with higher levels of depressive symptoms face increased risk that their children will also experience symptoms of depression and anxiety, our study showed that this was not the case for all children… Rather, it was those children who felt they were to blame for their mother’s sadness or depression … that had higher levels of internalizing symptoms.”
Kouros explains how vital it is for parents, or anyone else who frequently interacts with children, to pay close attention to the kinds of comments children make about their mother. If the child is expressing a belief that they are to blame, an adult must intervene.
The research was based on surveys completed by 129 mothers from the Dallas-Fort Worth community through schools, flyers, and the internet. On average, children included in the study were 13 years of age. The mothers in the study were asked to agree or disagree with 20 statements, such as “I could not shake off the blues” or “I lost interest in my usual activities.”
These answers were used to assess whether or not they were experiencing any kind of depressive symptoms. The study results found that nearly 12% of the women surveyed showed potentially clinical levels of depressive symptoms. The mothers were also asked whether their kids were experiencing any symptoms of anxiety or depression.
Why Do Kids Blame Themselves?
The kids were asked to complete a total of four surveys to see if they were dealing with any of these symptoms and whether they blamed themselves for their mothers’ symptoms. As Kouros explains, there are two possible reasons children may be likely to feel this blame for their mothers’ emotional struggles. The first is that children who feel this blame may be more likely to ruminate on their mother’s emotions.
Research shows that rumination on stressful things, especially those out of our control, can cause anxiety and depression to form. Second, a child who feels the blame can be more likely to try and remedy the situation with improper coping techniques. As a result, children experience feelings of loneliness, failure, and low self-worth—all of this because the child was misattributing their mother’s struggles to themselves.
The Way Forward
Of course, therapy can be a great way to help a child who is struggling with this blame. If you know a child, either your own or not, experiencing some form of guilt for the way their parents are feeling, consider recommending a therapist. Therapies that target negative thoughts can be especially helpful for such a child.
The study also notes that further research needs to be done to see if there is a link between a father’s issues and their child. The tie between a mother and her child is an incredibly strong one. The stressors affecting one can quickly impact the other as well.
Understanding that link is vital to understanding how we can improve these relationships and help children in need. They don’t deserve to feel any blame for something that is out of their hands, and they must be taught not to feel responsible for these things.
Starting the right conversations with kids can help them become better prepared for life ahead. We don’t need to let our children suffer along with us. Instead, we need to affirm to them that they are the bright spots of our lives. Our sadness is our own, and we are working through it. Once we can express this adequately to our children, we can relieve them of the burden of guilt.
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